Well, who’d’ve thought it, eh? Philip MacDonald first featured in my reading life in 1-star ignominy, and here he is not just beating all-comers to feature my 400th blog post, but doing so with a book that I — against my better judgement, nature, and previous standards — unabashedly loved with every fibre of my being. Quite the turnaround, and part of why I persevere with intially-disappointing authors. Just to clear something up from the off: no, I would not classify this as an impossible crime, despite its inclusion on the Ronald Lacourbe list being what brought it to my attention in the first place, but that’s hardly the first time this has happened….
Deemed ‘An Exercise in Crime’, the book is perhaps best known for telling its story out of sequence: we begin with an epilogue (uh-oh…) in which a large sum of cash — £287,499 3s 10½d, some £13 million in today’s market — is delivered to the Naval, Military and Cosmopolitan Assurance Company for reasons no-one there is able to discern. Come the end of the story, this will indeed make perfect sense; for now, let us go back in time…
…some six or so months, to Francis Xavier ‘F.X.’ Benedik, figurehead and driving influence of Rynox (Unlimited), a company whose precise business dealings are never made clear but do not matter: Rynox, we are left in no doubt, is Going Places, and it is Benedik who has made it happen. And so his murder at the hands of a disgruntled ex-associate could not come at a more crucial juncture in proceedings — had it been delayed by mere weeks, chances are Rynox would pull through, but his untimely death casts that in doubt. I could say more, and I originally did, but that’s really all you should know plot-wise going in.
It is the telling of this plot that really makes the book for me. Evincing MacDonald’s burgeoning film-writing career, it is split into three ‘Reels’, each divided into various Sequences which vary in their modes of telling. The first Reel is straight prose, detailing the characters in the piece up to Benedik’s murder and capturing characters in sly and trenchant observations such as a theatre clerk nursing a terrible hangover at work, Petronella Rickforth’s engagement to F.X.’s son Tony having “broken, at least temporarily, more hearts than any feminine decision in London for the past six months”, or the following exchange between the president of the company receiving that money and his secretary Miss Winter:
Very untidily heaped in [the room’s] very tidy centre were the sacks. Miss Winter was bending down, reading the label.
“Got a knife?” asked the President.
Miss Winter had a knife. Miss Winter always had everything.
It’s on the second Reel that things change: a cavalcade of police reports, crime scene maps, letters, a Coroner’s summation to a jury at the inquest, and internal police memoranda that outline the case, the investigation, and the conclusions, as well as the consequences for Rynox itself. It sounds gimmicky, and it probably is, but it’s also charming as all hell. If there’s one flaw, it’s that I’m still not entirely sure what a ‘Big Four beard’ is:
Every police constable carries a Big Four beard in his pocket. Some police constables, realising this, do nothing about it; others, realising this, do far too much. Neither class achieve the beard. Others neither miss opportunities nor try to make opportunities. They, of course, do not get the beard either, but they do at least go some way towards earning it.
Yup, no idea.
By the time Reel Three rolls around most readers will have figured out what is going on, and to a certain extent the events herein add nothing except a distraction. It’s not a traditional detective novel at all, but at the same time you will have the perfect opportunity to solve what’s going on. The slight improvisational structure will not be to the taste of every reader — and I’m more surprised than most to find out how much I enjoyed this aspect of it — but again for me it’s made by the character beats MacDonald effortlessly works in: the entirely irrelevant details of Mrs Pardee and her cloven palate in detailing the unthinking cruelty of immature young men, or the sparklingly beautiful succinctness in his descriptions:
Captain James laughed once more. A hundred tin cans fell down twenty-five uncarpeted steps.